st patricksToday is St Patrick’s Day.  A visitor to this planet could be forgiven for thinking Patrick is the patron saint of green wigs and black beer, but the Irish national festivities bring colour to a celebration of the life and work of a highly influential missionary without whom the history of Europe might have been very different.

Little remains in verifiable fact about Patrick’s life.  He was born in late fourth century in Britain in the dying days of the Roman Empire, though the date and location are unclear. Even his given name is uncertain – Patrick may actually be a nickname given him by his captors – ‘posh kid’ – as in the Roman Empire a patricius was the opposite of a ‘pleb’, a commoner.  Nearly all of what we know about him comes from two documents which are believed to have been written by him, one a ‘confession’ which was written towards the end of his life.

Despite this, modern mission workers can draw inspiration from this brave man who was so used by God:

ShamrockCross-cultural mission.  One legend is that Patrick used the shamrock as a means of explaining the Trinity, its three-lobed leaves representing the godhead with each lobe distinct but part of the whole.  In fact, the shamrock was already a sacred symbol of rebirth in Ireland, and the Morrigan was portrayed as a ‘trinity’ of goddesses in pagan Irish religion.  He picked up on features within Irish culture which would help him communicate his message.

The role of suffering in our lives.  When he was 16, Patrick was captured by pirates and taken to Ireland where he was sold as a slave.  He spent six years there before escaping and returning home.  He later claimed that this experience was critical to his conversion to Christianity.  Although he grew up in a Christian family, he had never personally accepted Christ.  He felt that through his capture was God disciplining him for his lack of faith, and as a result he became a Christian while working as a shepherd.

A sense of calling.  Having returned home, Patrick writes in his confession that he became a missionary in response to a vision calling him over to Ireland, rather like Paul’s Macedonian vision.

Perseverance in adversity.  As a foreigner, Patrick did not enjoy the protection of Irish kings like some other British missionaries did.  As such he knew beatings, imprisonment and theft.  He also was accused of financial impropriety by other Christians, possibly jealous of his success, and he also felt lonely.  He commented “How I would have loved to go to my country and my How_the_Irish_Saved_Civilizationparents, and also to Gaul in order to visit the brethren and to see the face of the saints of my Lord!  God knows that I much desired it but I am bound by the Spirit.”

Patrick planted churches, baptised thousands of converts, and as bishop appointed church officials, established councils, founded convents and monasteries, and laid the foundation for Christianity to take root in Ireland.  He was also, notably, the first great celtic missionary, unlike others at the time who came out of a continental catholic background.  As such he was the direct ancestor of that great missionary movement which came out of Ireland to take the gospel to the Scots and from there to the pagan Anglo-Saxons.  And as we all know, the Irish missionaries didn’t stop there but went on to save the whole of Civilisation .